. The 51km climb from Manali to the 3978m pass was completed in two stages to give us a ‘gentle’ start and the chance to acclimatise to higher altitudes. A combination of relief and euphoria at reaching the top was capped off by some awesome views down the Spitti valley with its borders of glaciated 6000m peaks. The decent was on a surface as poor as the climb, luckily the Kazakh desert was good preparation and Lens bike handling skills stood up to the test.
The next few days took us through some amazing mountain vista’s which, for once, inspired us to get the camera out of the bar bag and take some photos. Photographic motivation was also stimulation by the Border Roads Organisation’s (BRO) road signs that ranged from the inspirational ‘it is a tough road that leads to the heights of greatness,’ the factual ‘after drinking whisky driving is risky’ and the downright bizarre ‘love thy neighbour, but not while driving.’ The number of crashes caused by drink driving is not up for debate, but is copulation really a significant factor in Himalayan road accidents, my prudish English mind thinks not but maybe, ahem, ‘automotive satisfaction’ is a real problem over here.
Having camping gear with us meant we could camp in some fantastic locations with big night sky’s, the only disadvantage of this tactic is that October in the Himalaya’s can be a touch nippy
. Waking up with ice on the inside of the tent and frozen water bottles became the norm over the next few days as our average altitude exceeded 4000m. Cups of warming tea spiced with cloves became de rigueur with every opportunity for another cup taken up. The army engineers at the exotically named Zingzingbar were particularly hospitable turning car drivers away but welcoming us with steaming mugs and a plate of biscuits. Talking to them made us realize how tough a life the road workers have, even the army engineers who direct the work have to spend six months a year living in extremely isolated locations at high altitudes. The workers on the roads have it even worse spending the days doing tough manual labour in ragged cloths and enduring the sub zero night’s under holey tarpaulin tents. For their toil they get paid a meagre $3 a day, although this is pitiful by western standards (Helen and me spend around $15 a day) it is double the average wage of a worker in the rural lowlands.
Our final night in the mountains was spent camped at 4600m next to the lake Tso Kar, the surroundings would have been perfect if it had not been for all of the rubbish, plastic bags have been banned in parts of the Himalayas but this seems to have done little to stop the build up of plastic detritus ruining the natural environment. Helen had been suffering with the altitude during the ride across the Morri Planes and had come down with a splitting head ache, the night wasn’t much better for me and we had little sleep, not the best preparation for our highest pass yet
. At 5360m it was never going to be easy, we broke the climb down by cycling 5km at a time with a short biscuit break in between. The road surface was consistently terrible due to ongoing repairs, infuriatingly the old tarmac road surface which had been dug up was left at the side of the road reminding us that a few weeks earlier it probably would have been much easier. The distance covered between biscuit stops progressively decreased as altitude increased until we were barely managing a single kilometre before collapsing over the handlebars panting for breath. Twists and turns not visible from lower down on the climb made the top of the pass seem like an enigma never to be reached, however, finally after hours of breathless leg work the final stretch hove into sight. Rather foolishly I decided to ‘show this hill who’s boss’ and gave it some gas for the last couple of kilometres, stopping just short of the top absolutely exhausted I waited for Len and we cycled the final stretch together. Photo’s taken and warm layers donned we started the long decent towards Lato on immaculate tarmac. The valleys on this side of the pass had a completely different feel to those further south, this was Ladakh propper with chortens, prayer wheels and squat houses topped by bouffant’s of hay ready for the onset of winter. Our accommodation for the night was a home stay in a traditional Ladakhi house, it felt so good to be out of the wind and the cold after five nights camping. The house was cosiness itself with small rooms, low ceilings made out of poplar branches and Kashmir rugs spread over the floors. We sat in the kitchen come living room as dinner was prepared watching the goings on of our host family, the young son alternating between math homework and his toy car whilst his older sister listened to music and sung (badly). With dinner consumed as quickly as was politely possible we both retired to our room and immediately our heads hit the pillow sank into a long much needed slumber.
Our final days riding on the Manali-Leh highway took us along the bottom of the Indus valley with, thank goodness, no large climbs. We had intended to stop at Thikse but all the guest houses were shut up for the winter so it was onwards for a final 18km stretch. Arriving in Leh we checked into the cheapest guest house we could find before indulging in first, second and third dinners washed down with a well deserved beer.
I have been accused by Helen of finishing the last blog on a rather cheesy note, but after the past nine days of riding through fantastic mountain scenery I think every cheddar slice was justified. Leaving Manali the temperature was toasty, a sensation we would soon be dreaming of in the coming days. Despite the heat we passed groups of excited Indian tourists decked out in fir coats and Wellington Boots on their way to the top of the Rhotang Pass which is famous throughout India as the backdrop to Bollywood romance songs. These same tourists were intrigued by us and our bikes and the ’one photo’ demands which started off as an entertaining distraction from the climb soon became an annoyance not least because one photo inevitably turned into at least five taken with different combinations of grinning Indians. Helen lasted longer than me in responding civilly to these requests (I think she liked the attention) whereas towards the top I could only summon a dismissive wave of the hand, barely audible apology and glare through sweat stung eyes